Health Agenda

Family

Nutrition for kids: getting a healthy start

Nutrition is vital at every stage of kids' development and parents play a key role in encouraging healthy eating habits from a young age. Here’s how.

Healthy eating is important for Australians all of ages. But introducing the idea of nutrition to kids can be challenging. Only 5% of children aged 5–15 years are eating the recommended daily amount of vegetables, reports NSW Health.

And Australian kids are eating three to eight serves a day of “sometimes” foods that are high in kilojoules, saturated fat, added sugars and added salt like biscuits and ice cream, says the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Children are also spending more time on screens and in sedentary activity and less time taking part in physical activity and outdoor time than the recommended guidelines, which can compound the effects of a not-so-healthy lifestyle.

We know that healthy eating can help prevent infection, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, maintain our weight and add to our quality of life. So here’s how to teach your kids healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime.

Talking about nutrition for kids

Dr Jane Watson, an accredited practising dietitian specialising in paediatrics at Ethos Health, says discussions about healthy eating really depend on the age of your children and what’s appropriate for their stage, but a key theme is focusing on fuelling our bodies.

“Talk to kids about having fuel to do all the things they want to do: play, participate in sport,” she says.

Some language is best avoided, Dr Watson says. “Avoid weight-based language from early on. Children pick up on the adults around them criticising or judging their own bodies or those around them.

“And try not to use ‘good’ and ‘bad’ classifications with foods because food and nutrition are more complex than that.”

These sorts of labels can also lead to shame or guilt around certain foods – instead, focus on offering children a variety of different foods without judgement, less of the unhealthy options and encouraging those that are more nutritious.

From toddlerhood to independence

Different ages can present different challenges for parents, and young children in particular are renowned for being fussy eaters. It’s important to take the pressure off them, and you.

What’s your expectation going into the meal? If it’s for your children to eat piles of vegetables, you might be disappointed. But if it’s to offer your kids a healthy meal including a range of vegies and let them decide what they want to eat, it might make for a calmer meal.

As kids get older, they become more independent and often more concerned with their body image. If your child develops any worrying habits or attitudes around eating, chat with your GP or an accredited practising dietitian, says Dr Watson.

“It’s also really important for parents or carers to find more information or support, because we know when parental anxiety is increased it’s likely that unhelpful dynamics develop around eating like, for example, pressure to eat.”

Encouraging healthy eating habits

Try these strategies to help your kids develop healthy relationships with food:

Teach listening in to hunger and fullness cues: Our hunger cues tell us how much to eat and when to stop eating.

“They are our best guide to knowing how much our body needs. It’s easy to override those cues when we think we need to finish everything on a plate,” says Dr Watson.

Plan and prepare together: Involve your children in food shopping and cooking. They could come with you to the supermarket, chop vegetables or choose a new recipe. For younger kids, food prep can expose them to new foods in a no-pressure environment. They’ll get all of their senses involved with a new ingredient but aren’t expected to eat it at that stage.

Meal planning can also involve the whole family.

“It can save time, and children who are older can know that tonight is not their favourite meal, but tomorrow night is,” says Dr Watson. “It can take the heat out of working out what will be eaten each night.”

Try these steps for positive healthy eating for kids.

Schedule family meals: Eating can be an opportunity for connection. University of Oxford research shows that people who eat together are more satisfied with life. And kids and teens who have regular family meals are more likely to eat healthily as adults.

“Eating together is a really positive family routine,” says Dr Watson. “Even with very young children it has been shown over and over that it encourages a wider variety of foods and healthy eating behaviours. That message might sound like you have to do it every night, but you don’t. It may only be possible a couple of times a week.”

Have healthy snacks on hand: Have quick snacks ready to go in the fridge, like chopped carrot sticks or plain yoghurt. Avoid stocking up on processed snacks that are likely to be high in salt or sugar like chips, biscuits or muesli bars.

Try new things: Experiment with new foods, flavours and recipes on a regular basis. And take the pressure off – if your children don’t like asparagus or rockmelon, they don’t have to eat it. If they eat a little, you can praise them for trying something new.

Make gradual changes: Clearing your pantry of your usual foods for a family health-kick could be a shock for everyone. If you want to introduce healthy eating habits, talk about it with your kids and make changes week by week. Or instead of trying too many new recipes, simply increase the amount of veg in your family’s favourite meals.

Offer food regularly: Offer two main meals and 2–3 smaller meals a day, suggests Dr Watson.

“Having set meals and snacks helps avoid constant grazing. Once a pattern is established, children will understand that food will be offered every 2–3 hours and are less likely to nag you about food all day!”

Role-model healthy eating habits: “The home environment is the most powerful influence on what children eat: what food is available, what others are eating around them, what the routines are in the home,” says Dr Watson.

Eligible HCF members can access online resources and online/phone assessment through the Healthy Families for Life program, a collaboration with Ethos Health and Prima Health. The program gives parents tips and tools to help them understand more about kids’ nutrition. Email our team at wellbeing@hcf.com.au to find out more.

Words by Sophie Al-Bassam
First published May 2021

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